Lake Titicaca in the Andes between the border of Peru and Bolivia has become so dirty that fish, birds and other animals are dying en masse. Climate change is only worsening the situation. The problem has been known for years, but only now are the governments of both countries beginning to take action. Regine Reibling reports from Quito.
According to legend Lake Titicaca is the cradle of the Incan culture and civilisation, attracting thousands of tourists each year. Located at 3,800 metres above sea level in the Andes mountains, it is the largest freshwater lake in South America and the livelihood for 2 million people in Peru and Bolivia.
But that livelihood is now in danger because Lake Titicaca is highly polluted. So polluted, in fact, that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Germany warns it will collapse. “If we don’t take countermeasures, the lake is in danger of a biological death”, says Dirk Embert, South America expert for WWF Germany.
Deaths of fish, birds new turn for the worse
Sewage from nearby cities as well as industry and mines flows nearly unfiltered into the lake, 56 per cent of which rests is in Peru and 44 per cent of which is in Bolivia. The pollution’s impact has worsened in recent months and hundreds of dead fish, birds and frogs have been pulled out of the water or found dead on the lake’s shores in the past few weeks. “The situation is dramatic. The lake has been polluted for years, but the current mass deaths has a new quality,” says Embert. The Titicaca water frog, one of the largest species of frog in the world, is particularly endangered.
The Peruvian magazine Domingo published an article in early March called “Lake Titicaca is turning into a cemetery”. It told of floating carcasses, the smell of decay and diseases caused by water pollution. In spring 2014 researchers took samples and detected toxins such as lead, arsenic, mercury and phosphorus, reported the Peruvian daily newspaper La República.
Climate change worsening the problem
Cohana Bay in Bolivia is especially polluted as it is fed sewage from the 800,000 inhabitants of El Alta, a city that borders La Paz. The sewage system was designed for 300,000 people, leaving it completely overburdened for years, reports Bolivian media. On the Peruvian side, the bay around the city of Puno is especially affected.
Now add climate change to the equation. The lake’s water temperature has risen, water levels have dropped and fish stocks have decreased, warned the Global Nature Fund (GNF) already three years ago when it declared Titicaca “Threatened Lake of the Year 2012”. But while the problem has been known for many years, GNF claims that the authorities have relied for decades on the lake’s self-cleaning capacity. Local environmentalists speak of inaction when describing the governments’ approaches.
Governments finally begin to react
It is only now that the governments of both countries have finally recognised the seriousness of the situation and are beginning to act. Peru’s president Ollanta Humala announced in February that his country will invest around USD 450 million into six new sewage treatment plants. Ministries and local authorities in Bolivia have indicated that they will work together to save Lake Titicaca, reported the newspaper El Deber in mid-May. But just what they plan to do is still unclear.
The worsening situation is up for discussion at the upcoming bilateral government meeting with Humala’s cabinet and Evo Morales on 23 June, with heads of state set to meet in the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
But a timely rescue of Lake Titicaca is not expected: the promised sewage treatment plants will only go into service in 2017.